So here’s the continuation of yesterday’s list of questions and answers that I include in a quick summary of music and audio production.
Q – What production procedures are used to make recordings?
A – There are several typical ways to make a professional recording. The first is to use a minimal arrangement of microphones (usually just a stereo pair) and capture a “live” performance. With the advent of multitrack recording (thanks to Les Paul) in the 50s, it became possible to record an individual part of a complete track and then overlay another part in sync with the first track. Generations of recording machines from 2-track to 4-8-16-24-track analog tape machines were developed over the second 50 years of recording history. Today, engineers use digital means to extend the number of tracks to virtually any number. Movie mixes and large music composition can easily take more than 100 track and even as many as 500! And each of those parts can be individually edited, pitch corrected, dynamically adjusted, and replaced as desired by the creative team.
Once all of the parts are recorded or created on sequencers (tone generators that play in sync without being actually recorded as audio), a mixing engineer brings all of the parts together into a stereo or surround mix. They carefully establish the colors of the parts (EQ), balance the levels, modify the parts with signal processors (delay, chorusing etc), and pan all of the part among the spatial field.
A mastering engineer performs the final step. During this step an entire album is finalized. The sequence of tunes is determined, the relative loudness of each track is established, the tonal characteristics are adjusted so that all of the tracks sound like they belong on the same record, the overall levels are compressed to make the album “punchier” and more “present” and then the entire record is transferred into the final master.
Q – What changes occur to the final master during distribution?
A – It depends on how the music will be consumed. If the project is being released on a CD, the final master will be replicated on a CD and sound identical to the final master. If the artist/label plan a vinyl release, there will be additional mastering done to adhere to the RIAA vinyl specs. For digital download services like iTunes or Amazon music, the full fidelity files will be converted to reduced resolution data compressed files using techniques like MP3 or AAC. These techniques throw away some of the musical information. If the source recording was made at a high-fidelity standard, then it is possible to release a high-resolution version through the Internet for consumption on music servers or portable music players.
Q – What are the most important things that establish the fidelity of a music recording?
A – The decisions made by the producer, musician, and engineer in the studio AND by the mastering engineer lock in the fidelity of their final creative effort. If the goal is to deliver a record of a live event, then the production path should avoid excessive processing and deliver a recording that contains the original acoustics…all of the dynamics range, the frequencies and the emotion of the performance.
For other types of commercial music, the requirements of the label, the market, and the application usually demand a different sensibility…one that compromises the subtleties that make music in favor of qualities that maximize sales. Recordings in this category are heavily processed, mastered so that every second uses all of bits to max volume, and doesn’t represent an acoustic reality. But that’s clearly not the goal in those cases.
The most important thing for music fidelity is to make sure that artists, engineers, labels, and listeners understand the options that are available to them AND to realize that a “one size fits all” approach isn’t required anymore. With the introduction of high-fidelity digital downloads, everyone can have their music “personalized” to match their own tastes and environments.
So that’s the message. I’ll have lots of demos and time for further questions…and more answers.